In Nick Hornby’s late 1990s novel About a Boy, one of the characters lives comfortably from the royalties of a Christmas hit written by his late dad. These days, the easygoing Will Freeman might be tempted to auction off the rights and cash in while he can. The music-streaming revolution has turned old songs into one of the world’s most precious commodities. Back catalogues are being mined on an industrial scale.
When Bob Dylan sold all his work to Universal Music for an estimated $300m (£225m) earlier this month, the company described it as “the most significant music publishing agreement this century”.
Investors such as Hipgnosis Songs Fund are meanwhile hunting through the pop charts of the 1970s and 80s, looking for low-hanging fruit that can be dusted off and streamed to a new generation. Songs from Blondie, Chrissie Hynde and, yes, Barry Manilow, have helped turn Hipgnosis into one of the top performers in the FTSE 250. Merck Mercuriadis, its founder, has said that proven songs are a better bet than oil or gold.
The music economy is heading into its own version of the roaring 20s. Streaming last year accounted for well over half of global music industry revenue. Successful subscription models have unlocked wealth on an eye-watering scale for companies such as Spotify. After a year of rapid growth, the Swedish giant is now worth $60bn. Famous artists such as Dylan can more or less name their price, and investors are benefiting from the most bullish of bull markets. Hipgnosis floated only two years ago, but has already reached a market capitalisation of $1.25bn. The major labels are quids in too. Universal, Sony and Warner were making almost $20m a day even before Covid accelerated the digitalisation of everyday life.
For the poor bloody infantry of the music industry, however, the outlook is very different. As Covid puts paid to the possibility of income from live performances and touring, the sheer inequity of the streaming economy has been thrown into stark relief. Only a small fraction of total revenue makes its way to most artists. And songwriters, as opposed to performers, are at the very bottom of the heap.
Testifying to MPs in the run-up to Christmas, one leading songwriter said that the writers of some of Britain’s biggest hits were struggling to make ends meet. The singer Nadine Shah has also gone public about the dark side of the streaming boom. Ms Shah, who was nominated for the Mercury prize two years ago, revealed to the Guardian that she was making so little money from streaming that she had to move back in with her parents last summer.
The digital-subscription model for consuming music is, of course, a huge improvement on the wild west years. For a while, piracy meant artists’ work was being enjoyed for free. But a new era requires a new deal for those whose creativity is generating such vast sums. It is not fair, for example, for the major labels to treat each play of a song as a sale rather than a broadcast, allowing them to avoid paying out royalties to artists. And efforts should be made to channel more money away from back catalogues to emerging talents, whose best work lies in the future rather than the past.
There’s nothing wrong with listening to a bit of Blondie now and then. But in the years to come, time and space should be made for new kids on the block.